A powerful explanation of why people abuse – and what to do about it. It’s pointed towards men, who apparently perpetrate more abuse than women, and focussed on a heterosexual relationship, and, if your situation is different, you will be able to adapt.
You are not the cause of his anger or abuse
Anger in relationships is about blame: “I feel bad, and it’s your fault”. Even when he recognises his anger, he’ll blame it on you: “You push my buttons”, or, “I might have overreacted, but I’m human, and look what you did!”
Angry and controlling husbands are very anxious by temperament. From the time they were young children, they’ve had a more or less constant sense of dread that things will go badly and they will fail to cope. So they try to control their environment to avoid that terrible feeling of failure and inadequacy. But the cause of their anxiety is with them; not in their environment.
The sole purpose of your husband’s anger and abusive behaviour is to defend himself from feeling like a failure, especially as a:
In truth, most men feel inadequate about relationships. We learn to feel adequate by providing what all relationships require: support and compassion.
The silent abuser
Not all emotional abuse takes the form of shouting or criticism. More common forms are ‘stonewalling’ and ‘disengaging’. The man who stonewalls does not overtly put you down. Nevertheless, he punishes you for disagreeing with him by refusing to even think about your perspective.
The disengaging husband says, “Do whatever you want, just leave me alone”. He is often a workaholic, couch potato, womaniser, or obsessive about sports or some other activity. He tries to deal with his inadequacy about relationships by just not trying.
Both stonewalling and disengaging tactics can make you feel:
- Unseen and unheard in your marriage
- Like you don’t count
- Like a single parent
What all forms of abuse have in common
Whether overt or silent, all forms of abuse are failures of compassion; he stops caring about how you feel. Compassion is the lifeblood of marriage and failure of compassion is the heart disease.
It actually would be less hurtful if your husband never cared about how you felt, but, when you were falling in love, he cared a great deal. So now it feels like betrayal when he doesn’t care or try to understand. It feels like he’s not the person you married.
Unlike love, which masks the differences between people, compassion makes us sensitive to the individual strengths and vulnerabilities of other people. It lets us appreciate our differences. Love without the sensitivity of compassion is:
- Rejecting (who you really are as a person)
Harmful adaptations to anger and abuse
The most insidious aspect of abuse is not the obvious nervous reactions to shouting, name-calling, criticism or other demeaning behaviour. It’s the adaptations you make to try to prevent those painful episodes. Many women engage in constant self-editing and self-criticism to keep from ‘pushing his buttons’. Emotionally abused women can second guess themselves so much that they can lose themselves in a deep hole.
No one escapes the effects of abuse
It is not only the spouse, but everyone in a family, that is affected by emotional abuse.Everyone in an abusive family loses some degree of dignity and autonomy; that is to say, they lose their ability to decide their own thoughts, feelings and behaviour.At least half of victims, abusers and children in abusive families suffer from depression and/or anxiety levels that interfere with normal functioning in the world. In my experience most victims, abusers and children lack genuine self-esteem.
Emotional abuse is usually more psychologically damaging than physical abuse and witnessing abuse makes a child ten times more likely to become either an abuser or a victim of abuse. As adults, they are at increased risk of alcoholism, criminality, mental health problems and poverty.
Symptoms of children in abusive families include one or more of the following: depression (looks like chronic boredom), anxiety, school problems, aggressiveness, hyperactivity, low self-esteem, over-emotionality (anger, excitability or frequent crying) or no emotions at all.
Witnessing a parent victimised is usually more psychologically damaging to children than injuries from direct child abuse. Seeing a parent abused is child abuse.
Symptoms of victims and abusers often include one or more of the following: trouble sleeping, frequent periods of sadness and crying, continual worry, anxiety or excessive anger, obsessions (thoughts you can’t get out of your mind) and confusion or impaired decision-making.
Abuse tends to get worse without intervention from someone outside the family.
How to get your angry or abusive man to change
I was surprised by the hundreds of men seeking help who contacted me after seeing an Oprah show that I presented on the emotional abuse of wives. But I must say that, before the show, only a handful of the more than 4,000 angry and abusive men I have treated sought help on their own, without their wives or the courts pressuring them. That’s because their addiction to blame makes them think that they are merely reacting to everybody else.
The hard fact is, you may have to leave your husband to motivate him to change. If he is violent or threatens violence, call the police or file for a civil protection order. (Most communities have domestic violence hotlines to help you.) Leaving or calling the police may seem drastic, but they are the most compassionate things you can do. Your tough-love demands are likely to be the only way to help him stop the behaviour that makes him lose his humanity as he harms you and your children.
How you can know that he’s willing to change
The vast majority of angry and emotionally abusive men can change if they have the courage to give up blame and do the hard work of recovery. The following are signs that he is willing to take on the hard and sometimes painful task of saving his family. He recognises that:
- You and your children are important enough for him to change.
- He needs help to change. Saying, “I just won’t do it any more”, makes as much sense as a surgeon trying to take out his own ruptured appendix.
How abusers can change
To begin the arduous process of change, an abuser must recognise that:
- The most important thing about him – his core value – is his love, support, and protection of his family.
- His emotional distress was caused not by his wife but by his violation of his own core value.
- He is far less anxious when he feels emotionally connected to his wife.
- He likes himself when he is compassionate to her, dislikes himself when he blames her, and hates himself when he abuses her.
These deep emotional realisations merely begin the process of change. Lasting change does not occur in big waves of emotion, but in the steady trickle of everyday, routine value, respect, and compassion. (To love big, you have to think small.) The recovering abuser has to practise regulating his daily anxiety – every time it occurs – with his core value, i.e., by appreciating his wife and children.
The process of healing
When abusers learn a tool called HEALS, and practise it for several weeks, it builds a conditioned response to help them automatically convert anxiety, resentment, and anger into compassion. In other words, compassion will once again become their natural response to the distress of loved ones, like it was when they were young children, and, in most cases, like it was when they first got married.
Then, by habit, the recovering abuser will begin to see his anxiety, resentment, and anger as a kind of ‘gas gauge’ telling him that his core value is on empty, and he needs to fill it up by increasing his value and respect for his wife and children.
Most important, the recovering abuser must be especially compassionate to his wife’s post-traumatic stress reactions. Now that she feels safer and more confident, a lot of anger and anxiety about past abuse will begin to surface at unpredictable times. If the recovering abuser becomes defensive, i.e., fails at compassion, he will once again seem to her like the abuser of the past, but if he greets each one of these episodes with compassion and understanding, she will see that he is different and that she can safely be her natural, non-defensive, powerful self.
The recovering abuser must understand that his wife will not be able to trust him completely for a long time, no matter how much she tries. Love and compassion are unconditional, but trust, once it is betrayed by abuse, has to be earned, gradually and slowly. For many months he will have to do most of the compassion work unilaterally, to help his wife heal the wounds of years of abuse. Recovery from abuse is never a 50-50 deal; the former abuser has to do at least 90 percent of the work.
How victims recover and what they can expect
Your recovery begins with the recognition that:
- You can make your husband feel loved, but only his own behaviour can make him adequate and worthy of love.
- You have the power to make yourself feel adequate and worthy.
- You can develop a powerful self by doing what you deeply believe to be right and developing your own intellectual, creative, spiritual, and healing capacities, regardless of what your husband thinks, says, or does.
As you feel safer and more confident, you will most likely experience abrupt periods of anger and anxiety about past abuse, coupled with the natural fear that it could resume. This is a normal step in the healing process, as your central nervous system recalibrates to life without constant stress. These are temporary symptoms, much like the periods of exhaustion that occur during recovery from a long illness.
You must see this residual anger and anxiety, which can come out of nowhere, as:
- Temporary remnants of the past; not a judgment of the present.
- Physiological in nature, without psychological meaning – they don’t mean anything bad about you.
- A sign that you are healing.
How to know if your husband has truly changed
If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship you have no doubt experienced ‘honeymoon’ periods in the past when, driven by remorse, he seemed to change and everything was fine. The following will help you know that your partner is in the process of permanent change. You will feel that he consistently (every day):
- Values and appreciates you – you are important to him.
- Listens to you.
- Shows compassion – cares how you feel, even when you disagree with him.
- Respects you as an equal and doesn’t try to control you or dismiss your opinions.
- Shows affection without always expecting sex.
- Regulates his guilt, shame, anxiety, resentment or anger, without blaming them on you.
Look for compassion and support; not remorse and control
Most abusers feel guilt and remorse, at least in the first years of the abuse. Far from encouraging signs, guilt and remorse can actually lead to more abuse, as they:
- Focus his attention on how bad he feels.
- Make him insist that you ‘get over it’ so he can feel better.
In contrast, compassion:
- Focuses attention on how you feel.
- Makes him want to help you feel better.
It is easy to confuse control with support, especially for men (and parents, for that matter) who feel protective. Here are some pointers to help you tell the difference.
If he’s trying to control you, he:
- Tells you what to do and punishes you in some way if you don’t do it.
- Implies that you’re not competent, smart or resourceful enough to do it on your own.
- Makes it clear that your perspective isn’t important.
If he’s trying to support you, he:
- Helps you find what is best for you to do and stands by you if what you decide doesn’t work.
- Respects your competence, intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness.
- Values your opinions, even if he disagrees.
Tips for husbands to reconnect
If you’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship you almost certainly have developed habits of emotional disconnection. For instance, touch and eye contact are usually the first things to go in distressed relationships.
Because your husband has to overcome a nagging sense of relationship inadequacy, he should initiate all of the following for the first months of recovery.
Establish a daily routine of brief but consistent moments of emotional connection with your wife:
- Hug at least six times a day and hold each hug for at least six seconds. (Hold them that long to overcome any initial awkwardness.)
- Take at least six seconds six times a day to appreciate her.
- Have a weekly date night with just the two of you. (Inexpensive activities or just going for a walk alone together will do the trick.) This has to be as important as an appointment with your boss.
- Adopt a brief daily ritual that expresses your wife’s importance to you. For example, offer a single flower or a flower petal, light a candle, write a note or hum a few bars of a song you both like.
- Imagine a permanent lifeline – like the kind the astronauts use in outer space – connecting you emotionally, no matter how far apart you are.
- Take six seconds six times a day to think positively about her when you are not with her. This will make you behave more positively toward her when you are with her.
Steven Stosny, PhD, is the founder of CompassionPower in suburban Washington, DC, and author of several books on improving relationships. He has offered hundreds of workshops all over the world and has presented at most of the leading professional conferences. He has treated over 6,000 clients for various forms of resentment, anger, abuse, and violence. He has taught at the University of Maryland and at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
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